The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

Published by: Harvard Business School Press 2000
Pages: 317
Price: 35.95

The bubble may have burst, but that has hardly stopped prognostications that the Internet and the rapid accessibility of information will change everything, including social organizations as we know them.

Brown and Duguid succinctly discuss the interrelationship of social institutions and technology.

But a new line of thinking—superbly presented in The Social Life of Information—argues that the telecommunication-induced “death of distance,” to use Economist writer Frances Cairncross’ term, actually increases the importance of place. Matters of habit, environment and judgment play critical and under-appreciated roles in how technology gets used and for what purposes.

For nonprofit institutions, the message is clear: when weighing investments in technology, pay as much attention to looking at the social networks in which the technology will be used, as to the more typical IT-centered focus on capacity and capability. The social context of information, say the authors, is decisive in determining the role, value and implications of technology and is as important as the information being transmitted.

Nonprofit executives should not expect prescriptions from this book, but rather a set of questions about the interactions of technology with existing structures and approaches delivered with wit, humor and insight in a series of interconnected essays. The authors— Brown is the former Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and former Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (commonly known as PARC) while Duguid is a research specialist in Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of California at Berkeley— draw upon a wide array of examples from both the nonprofit and corporate sectors.

The volume is informed by a nicely contrarian sensibility, which coupled with the authors’ expert knowledge, passionate humanism and broad understanding provides provocative insights and thoughtful observations about likely ways technology will affect institutions and enrich work and education.

Against the blind enthusiasms of the futurists and technocrats, Brown and Duguid suggest that “society and social resources can solve many of the problems of both information and technology” and that it is society and social resources to which many technological designs and approaches are “blinkered, if not blind.” The chapters on the unnoticed aspects of the document and their implications for design and the future of the university are particularly cogent. The authors observe, for instance, that the success of much new technology on campus has little to do with geographical distance and a great deal with enabling people to interact across time, and thus serve as an extension of, not a replacement for, faceto- face meetings.

No other recent volume has so succinctly and compellingly made the case for the role of social institutions on the evolution of technology and, conversely, how technology is, in fact, likely to influence the shape, structure and reach of institutions.

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